x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

The future of Arab intellectualism is on the line

The death of Mohammed Arkoun at the age of 82 has left the intellectual scene all the way from Morocco to Oman at a loss.

As if the Arab world had plenty of contemporary thinkers to afford to lose one more. Last week, the Algerian intellectual Mohammed Arkoun, one of the most influential Islamic (some prefer "secular") scholars of the 20th century, died in his Paris home at the age of 82. His demise is the most recent in a series of deaths among Arab thinkers this year, which has left the intellectual scene all the way from Morocco to Oman at quite a loss.

Arkoun, born to a Berber Kabylie family, studied humanities in Algiers before completing his PhD in philosophy in France, where he lived, taught and wrote books in French. He is credited with developing "applied Islamology", a scientific discourse on Islamic heritage that uses cherished western academic tools of epistemology and psychoanalysis. Convinced that "faiths do not fall from the sky" and are instead a function of socio-political dynamics, he rejected the notion that western and Arab-Muslim civilisations are somehow fatefully antithetical. He saw that any civilisation, in the end, is a human model of conduct that must be open to critique and dialogue.

Arkoun was occasionally accused of selling out Islamic authenticity for a modern sensibility that lacked ethics. But despite the criticism, his death is a loss that is heavily felt within the wider context of the intellectual Arab world, particularly as its elite ages and slowly wastes away. Indeed, the Arab-Muslim world cries out for more scholars who understand its cultural schizophrenia and murky identity issues; scholars who know of Orientalism's shortcomings as well as the pitfalls of home-grown dogmatism.

But the sturdy pendulum of time apparently will have none of it. In May, Mohammed Abed al Jabri, the man who deconstructed the Arab mind, heritage and theo-political culture, also passed away in his Casablanca residence at the age of 75. The daunting titles of al Jabri's books alone give the reader an idea of the enormity of his critical enterprise. His seminal Critique of the Arab Mind tackles the constitutional, structural, political and ethical layers of Arab character and rationality in the context of Hellenistic and Renaissance philosophies.

Like Arkoun, al Jabri was no stranger to criticism. Some accused him of excessive reliance on classic theories from the Islamic Golden Age, which witnessed the rise of Muslim polymaths such as the 12th century scholar Ibn Rushd (Averroes). Others found fault with his strict division of Reason into Ancient Greek, western and Arab categories. More hard-line groups objected to his interpretative approach to the stories of the Quran.

As if that were not enough, Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, an Egyptian scholar, breathed his last in Cairo at the age of 67 this July. His application of the analytical methods of hermeneutics and exegesis in his Critique of Religious Discourse earned him the notorious kafir (apostate) nomination. As such, he was forcibly separated from his wife as a non-Muslim. Years of self-exile were also part of the price he paid for his ideas.

Yet, overall, the clamours and hoo-ha surrounding these suit-and-necktie critics have been, on a deeper level, healthy for the Arab-Muslim world. These minds posited problems that were hitherto under-debated, undiagnosed or purely taboo. Each in his own way stressed the need for the renovation of Islamic thought. They all posed the question: how can Muslim society wrap its mind around its present, make use of its past and be able to plan for the future if it does not have a clear notion of historical movement; if it does not have an adequate sense of what is and what is not anachronistic?

In the absence of a solid, up-and-coming generation of theoreticians, the vacuum that has been left behind could potentially prove fertile ground for sterile disputes between politicised Islamists and opportunistic secularists. The buffer that these and other Arab scholars worked hard to mount between such extreme factions seems to be quickly disintegrating. What's more, such thinkers are rare and hard to reproduce. Largely self-made one-offs, these men were not products of an academic paradigm that methodically churned out distinguished scholars. And as education ministries in the Arab-Muslim world promote infrastructural and marketing fields - civil engineering, computer science, telecommunications and business administration - over the humanities, the prospect for cultural and theoretical scholarship look all the more dismal.

Sure, good books outlive their authors. But the best books also age, and they need fresher books to rejuvenate and challenge them. This darkening horizon of Arab intellectuallism carries no fluttery winged silhouettes heralding a new generation of able thinkers ready to take up this cause. In an Arab world where illiteracy figures are atrocious, readership is skeletal and book circulation is negligible, it is no wonder that those Arab philosophers who died have left with a twinge in their hearts. But those who are alive still vigorously deplore the strategic failure of Arab governments - decades after independence - to devise a system of academic scholarship that places young talent on the shoulders of the old.

When a civilisation loses its vanguard, it loses its ability to look forward; it becomes a ship without a compass and without stars. Arkoun, Abu Zayd and al Jabri were three among a handful of eminent Arab thinkers who steered the course of a long-troubled ship. A relay baton sits on each one of their books, patiently waiting for the next intrepid hand to grab it. @Email:aelbahi@thenational.ae